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Open Letter to Merleau-Ponty (Combat 1947) With Preface

Open Letter to Merleau-Ponty (Combat 1947) With Preface

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Published by Rowan G Tepper
This essay and the translation (the latter a collaborative effort) that follows document the final rupture between Bataille and Sartre, and present a fascinating snapshot of intellectual politics in France in the immediate post-war period (during the height of the blacklisting conducted by the Cené). This translation and accompanying essay also touches upon the debate concerning "la littérature éngagé" and the relationship between politics and literature.
This essay and the translation (the latter a collaborative effort) that follows document the final rupture between Bataille and Sartre, and present a fascinating snapshot of intellectual politics in France in the immediate post-war period (during the height of the blacklisting conducted by the Cené). This translation and accompanying essay also touches upon the debate concerning "la littérature éngagé" and the relationship between politics and literature.

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Published by: Rowan G Tepper on May 10, 2010
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01/02/2013

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I – Historical Introduction
The various roles played by French writers during the German occupation in the SecondWorld War and its aftermath, whether as members of the Resistance, as collaborators, or as exiles(abroad or at home), brought the imbrication of literature and politics to the forefront of literary polemics. Scarcely had France been liberated by the Allies in 1944 than the
Comité Nationale des Ecrivains
(
Céné
), founded in 1941 by Jean Paulhan, began to blacklist fascist collaborators in theliterary community. Paulhan swiftly denounced this practice (and eventually published a polemicagainst the excessive zeal of the
Céné
entitled
Of Chaff and Wheat 
(Paris: Gallimard, 1948)), yetthe rise of the U.S.S.R. and of Communist orthodoxy produced an atmosphere of suspicion in theFrench literary community. Literature that was not
committed 
to a determinate political positionstood accused of obsolescence or of complicity with the atrocities of (then) recent history; and few,if any, were more committed to commitment – that is to say, to an explicit affirmation of a(Communist) political position by a writer and his literary production – than Jean-Paul Sartre.One must, however, raise the question as to whether the relationship between literature and politics could ever be so direct and simple. No literary movement in French literary history problematized this relationship more than surrealism and its dissidents. Indeed, while on the level of  praxis, the anti-fascist commitment of the surrealists can hardly be doubted, particularly in light of the formation and early success of 
Contra-Attaque
,
1
the case is less clear on the level of theory, in
1
Contra-Attaque
was formed in 1936 by André Breton and Georges Bataille to oppose right-wing nationalist andfascist elements and to support the social democrat coalition led by Léon Blum in that year's elections. In themanifesto written by Bataille for 
Contra-Attaque
it is evident that the group (whose members and associatesincluded Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Pierrre Klossowski, Maurice Heine and even Walter Benjamin) was Marxist but it was, however, opposed to official party Communism. The manifesto's conclusion should suffice todemonstrate: “distraction reaches the point at which this character is seen as the "master" able to take charge of events; the crowd sees a "master" in the weakest of "slaves," the slave of the capitalist system, the slave of a modeof production which condemns men to gigantic effort ending only in exhaustion, hunger, or war!We declare that the time has come to act as MASTERS. The masses have nothing to gain from the impotence of single individuals. Only the coming REVOLUTION has the power to take charge of things,to impose peace, toorganize production and abundance.
Georges Bataille, “Counter-Attack: Call to Action,” Translated byAnnette
 
light of the hyperbolic position of the
Second Manifesto
: “the simplest surrealist act consists indescending to the street with revolver in hand and shooting at random, as fast as one can, into thecrowd. Whoever has not... had such a desire to make an end of the trivial system of debasement andcretinization in place has his own place marked out in the crowd, belly in line with the barrel...”
2
What is implied of the political position of surrealism by such a statement, particularly in contrastwith the political praxis of the surrealists in the nineteen-thirties? It is telling that
Contra-Attaque
was short-lived, splintering shortly after the successful election of the socialist coalition led by LéonBlum
3
– it would appear that surrealism was above all a movement fundamentally marked by acertain heterodoxy. It is thus natural that surrealism and André Breton, in particular, served as aflashpoint in numerous post-war polemical exchanges.Surrealism was thus at the center of the dispute that occasioned the writing and publicationof the following open letter from Georges Bataille to Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the June 24
th
1947issue of the review
Combat 
(formerly a clandestine publication of the Resistance, and one of thefew reviews legally permitted to be published in the immediate post-war period), which was thenunder the directorship of Albert Camus and which is here presented for the first time in full Englishtranslation. The preceding month had seen the publication of a hostile essay on surrealism by Sartrein his journal
 Les Temps Modernes
, to which Bataille had been asked to contribute an article for alater issue. Sartre's attack on Breton and surrealism prompted Bataille to retract his contribution andto publish this open letter in
Combat,
after privately discussing the matter with Merleau-Ponty.
4
Bataille had long since broken formal ties with surrealism (as early as 1925), and yet he remained
Michelson, in
October 
, Vol. 36, Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing.(Spring,1986), pp. 27.2André Breton,
Slections
, Edited by mark Polizzoti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) pg. 1643It should be noted
en passant 
that Sartre failed to vote in this very election! “...he was sympathetic to the republicancause in Span be did little to support it; and while sympathetic to the Popular Front had never even voted in theelections.” David Drake,
 French Intellectuals and Politics from the Dreyfus Affair to the Occupation
(Gordonsville,VA: Palgave Macmillan, 2005), pg. 166.4Both Bataille and Merleau-Ponty had attended Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's
 Phenomenology of Spirit 
during the 1930's and presumably met there for the first time. Despite their political and philosophical differences,Bataille and Merleau-Ponty maintained a long friendship, and Bataille exhibited much interest in Merleau-Ponty's
 Phenomenology of Perception
; in 1950 Bataille wrote of his efforts to obtain a copy of Merleau-Ponty's book for usein writing his
 Histoire de l'Érotisme
(published posthumously as the second volume of 
 La Part Maudite
). (GeorgesBataille,
Choix de Lettres
, 407).
 
sympathetic, for he had been introduced to Breton some twenty-two years earlier by Michel Leiris
5
,and, while it would be perhaps an understatement to characterize their friendship as stormy, Bretonwrote in 1947 that Bataille was “one of the few men in my life I have found worth taking thetrouble of getting to know.”
6
Moreover, Sartre had published an essay entitled
Un nouveau mystique
nearly four years earlier in
Cahiers du Sud.
In this essay, a review of 
 Inner Experience
, Sartrecharged Bataille with proposing “a new mysticism” with this book – a negative pantheism, as itwere. And yet, this essay did not result in open hostility!It was thus that Sartre's
 political 
(in contradistinction to his previous
theoretical, literary
and
 philosophical 
argument with Bataille) condemnation of Breton provoked Bataille's hostility.
7
Whileit is reasonable to take Bataille at his word that his intention in publishing this letter was toarticulate the reasons for his retraction, in addition to explaining his specific points of contentionwith Sartre, it is also notable that the review in which it was published,
Combat 
, formerly anationalist publication during the thirties, was then under the directorship of Albert Camus.Moreover, it was at Bataille's request that this letter was published, according to this brief prefatorynote:Georges Bataille requested that we publish the letter below, sent to the editor in chief of 
Temps Modernes
. There one sees that, invited to contribute to that journal, GeorgesBataille recused himself on account of a recent article by Jean-Paul Sartre on AndréBreton and surrealism. There was no presentiment of the aggression with which our literary essayist would give his opinion (even here, Breton speaks quite courteously of Sartre and of existentialism). We therefore publish this letter... and note another vigorousresponse to Sartre by Max-Pol Fouchet in the latest number of the
Gazette des Lettres.
8
5Bataille, “Surrealism from Day to Day,” in
The
 
 Absence of Myth
, pg. 37-41.6Ibid. pg. 41.7Bataille's noted collegiality and willingness to see past past disputes is evidenced by his on-and-off friendship withBreton.8Georges Bataille,
Oeuvres Complètes
 
tome XI 
(Paris: Gallimard, 1988), pg. 570. Translation by R.G.T/“Georges Bataille nous prie de publier la lettre ci-dessous envoyée au rédacteur en chief des
TempsModernes
. On y verra qu'invité à collaborer à cette revue, Georges Bataille se récuse en raison du récentarticle de Jean-Paul Sartre sur André Breton et le surréalisme. Notre chroniquer littéraire a pris position à propos de cette agression que rien ne laissait pressentir (Breton, ici même, parlait fort courtoisement deSartre et de l'existentialisme). Nous publions donc cette lettre... et signalons une autre réponse à Sartre,vigoureuse elle aussi, de Max-Pol Fouchet dans le dernier numéro de la
Gazette des Lettres
.”

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